M.H. Mead, the writing team of Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion, hooked me with their first novel, Fate’s Mirror. They write my favorite type of science fiction–highly speculative and spookily prescient. When their newest novel, Taking the Highway, came out, I snatched it up on the first day of release.
I asked Margaret and Harry about Taking the Highway and its theme of technophobia. Here is what they had to say:
Will restaurants someday seat customers by their tech preference, much the same way they used to seat them by their smoking preference?
Yes. In fact, some already are.
We’re science fiction writers, so we love to predict the future. We guess what’s around the corner, hoping the real world doesn’t catch up to our fictional one before the book is published. Our newest novel, Taking the Highway, is set in a future that’s even more high-tech than our own. But the culture has shifted, and there is a huge backlash against technology, especially where it intersects with social life. So of course we had to include a scene in a restaurant. What’s more social than dining out? In Taking the Highway, the restaurant hostess decides where to seat patrons by asking, “tech or no tech?”
We thought we’d just made that up. Imagine our surprise when we discovered a restaurant in Los Angeles which is already doing this. The restaurant, called Eva, gives patrons a 5% discount if they turn in their phones or computers when they arrive. There is no honor system here, no sneaking a look at texts under the table. The staff at Eva confiscates the cell phones and computers until the customer is ready to leave.
We’re personally shocked that anyone wouldn’t take that deal, but not everyone does. And of course, the tech-free bubble only lasts for the duration of one meal—a very short time. Here’s a paragraph from Taking the Highway. Our hero, homicide detective Andre LaCroix, is meeting his brother for lunch, and the hostess has just asked if he wants to sit in the tech or no tech section.
Andre peered around the hostess into the restaurant and saw several empty tables, most of them set for single diners. Nobody had to eat alone when they could bring their virtual friends with them. But was it truly worse than the tables of two and four and six? The bigger the group, the more blips, egrams and phone calls it took to pick a restaurant. Then they used GPS to find the place, and when they finally sat down, they reveled in the incredible tangibility of it all, patting themselves on the back for keeping it real.
Of course, Andre’s problems go way beyond where to sit when dining out. He has to deal with car crashes, professional hitchhikers, terrorists, dirty cops, and a dangerous killer. Ironically enough, in the scene above, he chooses not to eat in that restaurant at all. But it’s more than a bit of background scenery. It’s also a clue. Andre uses both high-tech and no-tech methods to catch a killer and ultimately triumph.
We think of Andre when we’re trapped in a restaurant, seated near an idiot yelling into his cell phone. We also think of him when we see people genuinely enjoying the company of their real-world dining companions.
And we dream of a future when those two kinds of people are seated nowhere near each other in a restaurant.
About the authors: Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion write near-future thrillers under the shared pen name M.H. Mead. To learn more about them, or about Taking the Highway or to share a great key lime pie recipe, visit their website at www.yangandcampion.com.
In a time long before humans walked the Earth, a mysterious being known only as The Lost Aetelia crafted an elaborate series of Watchtowers, along with their resident guardians, the Aetelia, to watch over the operations of the Universe. In time, a rebellious group of these Aetelia came to Earth in an attempt to challenge the established structure of the Universe. A bitter war ensued, and these rebels, who had come to be known as Watchers, disappeared from human history.
Since I’m fascinated by the process of world-building in fiction, I had to ask that cheesy question, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ Actually, what I’m really interested in is the ‘trigger’ moment. The article, the snippet of dialogue, the event or person that made you think, ‘Hmn, there is a story here.’
So what is yours, Jonathan? What launched your journey, so to speak?
World-building has become second nature to me at this point. I think it has to do with my early need to escape from the real world, due to some completely-out-of-my-control circumstances during my childhood. That or something in the rural water supply. Could be either, really. The thing is that I’ve always synthesized my influences into something that, I hope at least, is greater than the sum of its parts. Because of that it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint just where a world or story originates. This snippet of conversation comes from a scene I watched on, say, the show Carnivale, or this concept is an evolved idea from something Lovecraft wrote. I think you get the idea.
I spend all this time laboring this point because The Station is nothing like that. The confines of the world had been somewhat established during the writing of The Corridors of the Dead, and the first sequence popped into my head practically full-born. Okay, that’s not quite true. Two distinct works probably influenced the kernel of the idea: Lost and Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.
I tend to get my ideas when I’m falling asleep, somewhere between the wrenching anxiety of thinking about my next workday and dreaming that I’m a Viking. One night during the last half of writing Corridors of the Dead I saw two men locked in a desperate battle in the middle of a snowfield. I held on to that idea for a few nights, continually asking myself what the men might be fighting over.
One night the dual influences that I mentioned above paid my subconscious a visit, and the answer became apparent: they fought over a piece of ancient technology. Before I knew it, that one scene expanded into a running film in my head of a librarian from the distant past descending into an even more ancient technological wonder. From there, linking it to the underpinning ideas of my trilogy was pretty simple: the nominal “good guys” had gone after the place to save it from the angelic bad guys, and the thing in the station tied to the revelation at the end of City of the Dead.
After that, it was all about trying to establish different levels of technological advancements between the ancient culture and the even-more-ancient cultures. Most of that came from some old Greek technological wonders. Perhaps not the most obvious connection, but you go with what you know, right?
I love the twisty, turny ways a writer’s mind works. Thanks, Jonathan. Your books are my TBR pile. Looking forward to seeing how you pull all this together.
Also available now (go ahead, click on the image):
You can visit Jonathan on his blog, Shaggin’ The Muse.
I know when a novel is good when it invades my dreams. I stayed up too late reading Fate’s Mirror and wanted to continue, but my eyeballs refused to cooperate. It’s as if I continued reading. In the dream-novel I was trying to save the hero, Morris, from a terrible fate.
Actually, my dreams didn’t do nearly as good as the author.
Set in 2043, Morris Payne (Parr, Parish, etc) is a viker, a super computer hacker and genius who lives a self-satisfied existence in a suburban computerized house named Sweetheart. He makes his living “researching” and exploring the ‘verse. To his clients he’s Surfer Morris, cocky and cute and arrogant. In his own mind, he’s a swashbuckling privateer, the terror of the virtual high seas. It’s only when assassins try to murder him by blowing up Sweetheart that the truth about Morris is revealed. He’s severely agoraphobic, terrified of the real world. He can’t even eat food touched or prepared by another human being. Pretty much the only person he’s had direct contact with in years is his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Kali. She’s out of contact. So he turns to a private investigator, one of his clients, Aidra. It isn’t Surfer Morris who shows up at Aidra’s door, but a shivering, weeping, terrified young man. Aidra has a teenaged son, a struggling business and a pitiful bank account. She can’t turn Morris away. That’s a mistake. It’s not paranoia when someone really is trying to kill you. Morris and Aidra learn Kali was murdered–horribly–and attempts are made on Morris’s and Aidra’s lives. It’s not until Morris stands to lose everything and everyone dear to him that the layers and depths of the truth begins to unravel. The NSA (yes, that sneaky government spy shop) made some serious mistakes fooling around in developing ECs–electronic consciousness. Now the ECs, who have dubbed themselves the Fates, are threatening the entire world. Unless Morris can stop them, the NSA will use extreme measures that will pretty much destroy the world, too.
I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but I’m finding cyber-punk to my taste (Robert Sawyer, Daniel Suarez and a few others–and now M. H. Mead). I’m non-nerdy and not especially good with a computer, but I find the whole idea of a virtual world as real as the real world compelling. Fate’s Mirror feeds my love of action-adventure tales and mythology, too, by its immersion into Morris’s virtual world where he’s a pirate on a pirate ship. The sea battles are as well drawn and vivid as any of the 19th or 20th century swashbucklers I devoured as a kid. And then! Mead developed Loki, another EC, into a full-blown trickster god and takes a turn into the world of Norse mythology. So we have hacking and agoraphobia and betrayal and spies and flaming battles on the high seas and Ragnorak. That all sounds messy and crowded for one novel, but Mead pulls it off with well-drawn characters and tight plotting and strong writing.
The best part of the novel is Morris, an unlikely hero. He’s not the heroic figure he imagines himself to be in the virtual world. He’s spent a lifetime using his agoraphobia to conceal himself from the real world, when he’s actually hiding from himself. His real self is much, much better than the virtual Morris, but it takes a crisis for him to figure it out. No wonder I worried about him so much that he showed up in my dreams.
Now I have to go download more of Mead’s books.
Fate’s Mirror, Kindle Edition
Discovered: Via the author’s tweets.
Purchased on Amazon December 29, 2011, $2.99.